Creating top players list in the NBA list may seem like a pointless task as knowing who the best players in the game really isn’t that difficult for anyone who follows basketball. Some combination of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and several other guys are widely considered and accepted as top 5 players, depending who you ask. But what actually makes these players stand out as the elite talents in the NBA? What factors should take precedence when trying to sort who is better than whom?
Let’s get right into it.
#5 James Harden
27.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 5.7 RPG, 10.2 FTA/game
60.5% TS, .265 WS/48, 26.7 PER
#1 in ORPM at 8.66, #3 overall at 8.50 RPM
Offensive On/Off- 111.9/97.7 +14.2 Net
James Harden elevated his game to another level last season and was a serious MVP candidate the entire year. He carried the Rockets almost single-handily to the #2 seed in the West to a 56-26 record and dealing with significant injuries to the core rotation. Howard, Beverly, Jones and Motiejunas, four of the five best players on the Rockets, missed a combined 125 games. Offensively, Harden can easily be argued as the most impactful player in the game because of his insane ability to get to the free-throw line, score efficiently and an elite playmaker from the shooting guard position.
Unsurprisingly, what holds Harden back from being higher on this list and will likely prevent him from ever being the best player in the NBA is his lack of defensive ability. He’s been critiqued hard in the past (and rightfully so) for a lack of effort and performance on that end of the floor. Harden improved significantly (by his standards) defensively this season ranking 31st among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, 4.2 Defensive Win Shares, and a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 1.0, all the best marks in his career. Despite these improvements, Harden is barely a passable defensive player, which hurts his case for being ranked higher.
#4 Anthony Davis
24.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG
59.1% TS, .274 WS/48, 30.8 PER
#4 overall in RPM at 8.18, #7 in DRPM at 4.20
Offensive On/Off- 112.2/104.8 +7.5 Net
Defensive On/Off- 106.7/11.1 -4.4 Net
People have yet to realize just how special Davis was this past season. 22 year-olds do not put up the numbers he did on both ends. It hadn’t happened in the NBA and likely won’t again for a long time. In fact, the only two players in the NBA who have matched what Davis has done in his first three years are Hakeem Olajuwon (who was 21 in his rookie season) and David Robinson (who was 24 in his rookie year). What’s so utterly fascinating about Davis is he’s already one of the premier players in the NBA who is putting up historic numbers, yet we have no idea how good he can actually get.
Davis started taking leadership responsibility of the team and began to embrace his role as the franchise player last season. He was excellent in the clutch and showed he could perform in big games, leading his team to the playoffs for the first time since the Chris Paul era. He had an excellent showing in his first playoff series with a 31.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 2.0 APG, 1.3 SPG stat line against the best team and defense in the league.
What sets Davis apart as a top 5 player in this league is he is the rare player who is far ahead of most in the eye test and statistics. When you watch him play, it’s easy to see the elite impact he makes in many facets of the game. He awes you with spectacular plays and performances each and every night. But while some players make their living off of past reputation, (I.E. any Kobe Bryant defensive team award in the past 10 seasons) Davis has a mountain of statistical evidence of his dominance behind him. There are better offensive and defensive players than him in the NBA, but there isn’t a better true two-way player who impacts both sides of the floor at his level.
#3 Kevin Durant
25.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 33.8 MPG
63.3% TS, .252 WS/48, 27.6 PER
Missed 55 games due to injury
I don’t think there’s a bigger indication of how dominant a player is than when in a “down” year, riddled with injuries and Durant puts numbers that most would only dream of. The 33.8 MPG he played last season were a career low and far lower than his career average of 38 MPG. Add in the fact that he was recovering for most of the games he did play and you see the reason for his decline.
The only reason OKC did not completely fall apart, although they weren’t even close to being the same team with Durant, was the fact they had Westbrook play completely out of his mind to carry the team. He easily could have been argued as a top 5 player as well. However, as Durant had done the past few season, he showed he’s a two-star and remains one of the most impactful scorers in the game. With him on the floor, OKC was +8.8 points. Without him, they were -0.1 points on the year. With a healthy Durant, he should be ready to go for the new season and will show that he’s someone who will be in the MVP conversation year in and year out.
#2 Steph Curry
23.8 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 8.1 3pt FGA/game, 44% 3pt
63.8% TS, .288 WS/48, 28.0 PER
#1 overall in RPM with 9.34, #2 PG in DRPM with 1.91
Offensive On/Off- 117.4/103.2- +14.2 Net
Defensive On/Off- 101.0/104.9- -3.9 Net
In a similar fashion to Harden, Curry elevated his game to another level on his way towards the MVP award and championship this season. The one key difference is Curry learned how to be a positive impact player on the defensive end of the floor. Both guys are absurdly good offensive talents but I value the elite talents who make that impact on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor in order to be a top 2 player in the game.
Curry’s impact this season was cannot be overstated enough. The Warriors were +916 when he was on the floor and -88 when he was off. Nobody in the NBA, not even LeBron had even close to that distribution of on/off.
Although defensive statistics are not perfect, showing when every statistic available shows vast improvement on the defensive end for Curry, there has to be some truth to it. His defensive progress also showed when watching him play and his ability to stay in front of defenders.
Steph’s creativity and shooting stroke make him an impossible to guard offensively. He elevates those around him and carries the team when he needs to. While I don’t think he’ll ever take the throne completely as the best player in the game, Curry will certainly be in the MVP discussion for a majority of his career.
#1 LeBron James
25.3 PPG, 7.4 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG,
57.7 TS%, .199 WS/48, 25.9 PER
#2 overall in RPM at 8.78
Offensive On/Off- 116.7/104.5 +12.2 Net
Defensive On/Off- 105.6/110.6 -4.9 Net
If you would have asked me this question before the finals, LeBron still would have taken my top spot as the best player in the league. His performance in the finals just solidified that opinion. As he’s been for nearly a decade, there isn’t anyone in the game who means more to a team than James being on the floor for his team.
Where James edges out the rest of the field is how he’s still able to contribute in all facets with such an enormously high usage rate at great efficiency. His 32.9% USG rate last season dictates just how much his team relies him to create offensively, and still maintains a good 15.9% TOV rate and an excellent 57.7% TS. The fact is that nobody draws more attention than James, nobody relies on one player than the Cavs do on James and he still manages to come through on a nightly basis. That’s what keeps him as the top player in the NBA heading into next season.